Saint John the Baptist is our guide, along with Isaias the Prophet, through the season of Advent. He helps us to prepare for the coming of Christ, in His mystically renewed first coming in mercy (the mystery of the Nativity), in His second coming in majesty as the Just Judge, and in that spiritual third coming that Saint Bernard places between the other two.
The great Baptist was honored by Jesus Himself as “more than a prophet” (Matt. 11:9) because his role is to be the “angel” sent to prepare the way of the Messias.
Saint John appears on the scene as the last in a long line of Old Testament prophets. Like Isaias, Jeremias, and others, his speaking truth to power was rewarded with martyrdom. Isaias was sawn in half by order of King Manasses of Juda, while Jeremias was stoned to death by his fellow Jews in Egypt. Such martyrdoms hint at one of the more unpleasant aspects of the Old Testament, namely, the frequent infidelities of the chosen people to their God — even to the point of falling at times into crass sins against the first commandment. In his book of meditations, The Challenge of Faith, Brother Francis touches on the mystery in these few words:
It is very difficult for us to understand why God should have favored them as much as He did, yet the Faith somehow survived in their midst, through a line of living traditions which was at times extremely thin.
Saint Paul warned both the Romans and the Corinthians not to be complacent or self-congratulatory when learning of such things; we Christians should take them as a cautionary lesson for ourselves not to be presumptuous. And, indeed, do not the fallings away of entire nations to heresy, schism, or apostasy show us that we, too — even in the grace of the New Testament — can witness those living traditions becoming comparatively thin at times?
At any rate, that thin line of living traditions of the Old Covenant reached Saint John, who was the one to point out Our Lord as the Lamb of God come to take away the sins of the world, and whose special vocation was to prepare the way for Christ.
The Gospel for the first Sunday of Advent concerns the Second Coming. It is there to remind us that our preparation is not only for Christ’s coming in meekness and humility at His Nativity, but also for when He will come in majesty and justice. The Baptist does not appear in that Gospel, but meets us on the second Sunday, when Saint Matthew presents him already in prison and not long off from martyrdom. We see him sending two disciples to inquire of Jesus whether He is the Messias or not (for their benefit, not John’s). This question Jesus only indirectly answers by explaining to them how the prophecy of Isaias is being fulfilled before their eyes by His miracles and preaching. It is on this occasion that Jesus says of John, after those disciples leave, that His cousin is a prophet and “greater than a prophet.” On the third Sunday Saint John the Evangelist presents us with the Precursor’s baptizing mission and his replies to the official embassy of priests and Levites sent to ask him about his mission. They were wondering why John was baptizing if he was not the Christ or the Prophet or Elias. (Aside from the various Old Testament prefigurations of Baptism, there must have been a Jewish oral tradition, not explicit in the Hebrew Scriptures, that the Messias would come baptizing. Otherwise, the question makes little sense. This tradition was probably based on the prophecy of Ezechiel.) In this same Gospel reading for the third Sunday, John mentions “one in the midst of you, whom you know not … the latchet of whose shoe I am not worthy to loose.” On the fourth Sunday, after several verses naming historical personages and thus clearly establishing the time of these events (the emperor, governor, tetrarchs, and priests), we learn from Saint Luke that John’s baptism is “the baptism of penance for the remission of sins,” and that this — penance — has much to do with his preparing the way of the Lord and making straight His paths. The promise that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” seems itself to be predicated on penance for sin as a preparation for that salvation.
As a prophet who told the truth to the lowly and powerful alike, John was fearless. Utterly unhampered by human respect, he did not flinch to tell the Pharisees and Sadducees alike, “Ye brood of vipers, who hath shewed you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matt. 3:7). But what really got him in trouble were the frank words to Herod Antipas: “It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife” (Mark 6:18). Herodias, the adulterous wife of Philip (the tetrarch of Iturea and Herod’s brother), did not like this frank talk. As Jezabel did Elias, so Herodias wanted John dead. Enter her daughter, Salome the dancing girl, a little gluttony, a little drunkenness, a lot of lust, and Herod the weak adulterer becomes Herod the reluctant murderer. The prophet’s head ends up on the damsel’s dish.
And what does this have to do with the Church in our day?
Four Cardinals have asked the Holy Father for clarity on certain ambiguous passages of Amoris Laetitia because of the confusion these passages have caused regarding the Church’s teaching on marriage, on conscience, and on the objective nature of the moral act. They have, in essence, professed that Saint John the Baptist did not die in vain for saying “It is not lawful…” to Herod. The Church’s moral teachings must not be dissolved in the name of a false mercy clothing itself in terms like “gradualism” and “accompaniment.”
The voice of the Forerunner can be heard in these eminent churchmen, and while they are not likely to lose their heads over it, it has been noted — however accurately — that they could lose their hats. They have certainly opened themselves up to attack in what has become an ecclesiastical environment some have called a “reign of terror” and others have compared to Soviet tyranny — as have the other cardinal, bishops, simple priests and professional scholars, who have put their careers and reputations on the line. Their fortitude is to be commended, and imitated.
An unyielding commitment to the Church’s inerrant deposit of the faith is not, primarily, a matter of controversy and intrigue, even if at times it is bound to become so. This commitment is first and foremost something each of us is called to preserve faithfully in our hearts, to live in our lives, and to radiate to those around us as the “good odour of Christ” (2 Cor. 2:15).
Each of us has a little John the Baptist in our soul, called the conscience. In imitation of the original John the Baptist, it must be true to God’s word no matter what the Herods of this world say or do. It must conform itself to that Catholic line of living traditions which will always remain unbroken, even if unpopular. When our conscience, informed by the Church’s inerrant and infallibly transmitted tradition, says to us, “it is not lawful” on any matter, we are obliged to obey.
And to sever the conscience from the perennial moral teaching of the Church is to cut off its head, as Herod did John’s.
As we approach Christmas, a festival so rich in the imagery of light amid darkness, may God grant us to have both a correct and good conscience, one that will, like the Precursor in the desert, give testimony of the light of Christ, that we may not walk in darkness, but have the light of supernatural life (cf. Jn. 1:7, 8:12).